The Anniversary of Trentacost v. Brussel

On this date in 1980, the Supreme Court decided Trentacost v. Brussel, 82 N.J. 214 (1980).  As stated by Justice Pashman, who wrote the majority opinion, the question there was “whether a landlord who provides inadequate security for common areas of rental premises may be liable for failing to prevent a criminal assault upon a tenant.”  The Court affirmed decisions of the Law Division and the Appellate Division that had found the landlord liable and imposed a damage award.

Five years earlier, the Court had decided Braitman v. Overlook Terrace Corp., 68 N.J. 368 (1975).  There, the Court had used “familiar negligence concepts” to find a landlord who had failed to install a lock on the entrance to its building, which was located in a high-crime neighborhood, liable to a tenant whose apartment was burglarized.  The Court considered other bases for liability as well, but the majority did not endorse them, though three members of the Court (Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Sullivan and Pashman) would have done so.

In Trentacost, the Court held that the rule of Braitman controlled.  The Appellate Division had so ruled below. But “[a]lthough [the Court] need[ed] go no further to affirm the judgment for the tenant, [the Court] [chose] not to ignore the alternative theories of landlord liability discussed in Braitman.”  Drawing on the views of the Chief Justice and Justices Sullivan and Pashman in Braitman, Trentacost held, in a detailed discussion, that by failing to provide adequate security, the landlord had breached the implied warranty of habitability.  That theory offered a simpler path to liability than did traditional negligence principles, which called for fact-intensive, case-by-case decisions.

Justice Pashman summed up the Court’s ruling as follows: “Our analysis has led to the conclusion that a landlord has a legal duty to take reasonable security measures for tenant protection on the premises.  His obligation to provide safe and habitable premises gives rise to potential liability on alternative grounds of conventional negligence and the implied warranty of habitability.  Together these theories will serve to protect the otherwise precarious position of the individual tenant in a manner consistent with modern conceptions of public policy.”

Justice Schreiber concurred in the result.  He would have relied solely on “a traditional tort theory” and found “no need to search for or rely upon any other doctrine.”  Justice Clifford dissented in part, contending that the majority’s reliance on the implied warranty of habitability “amounts to absolute liability solely upon the relationship between the landlord and tenant and upon loose notions of foreseeability.  In my view the existence of a duty here should not be grounded simply on a special relationship between the parties but rather should arise from the particular circumstances of the case, including foreseeability.”

Justices Schreiber and Clifford had together filed a concurring opinion in Braitman that declined to go beyond common law negligence principles in deciding that case.  That was the majority view of the Court then.  In the five years between Braitman and Trentacost, however, the composition of the Court changed, and Justice Pashman cited “the need for judicial guidance regarding landlord liability has grown,” citing a Rutgers Law Review article, as grounds for going beyond Braitman.  The result was another landmark Supreme Court decision extending tenant protections, a ruling that continues to have impact today, exactly 39 years later.